Prologue by David Neuman, director Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall
Concrete metaphysics essay by Doris von Drathen, art critic based in Paris
Conversation with Kimsooja by Tessa Praun, assistant curator Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall
Exhibition catalogue no 34 ISBN 91-974236-8-8. 64 pages, in colour, richly illustrated. Texts in Swedish/English.
Published in 2006 by Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall.
Price: 240 SEK (approx. 24 EUR)
South Korea vs. New York – Living with Two Cultures
Tessa Praun in dialogue with Kimsooja, June 2006
You were born in Taegu, South Korea, in the late 50s. Can you describe your hometown and the environment you grew up in?
Taegu is the third-largest city in Korea, and it’s known for its fabric industry as well as its prominent political influence and rigorous focus placed on education. I was born in Taegu, but lived in many different cities and villages from the age of eight. Our neighborhoods in Taegu were near US army bases, where I was exposed to a mixed cultural environment through observing US army soldiers and foreigners. It was an average Korean middle-class neighborhood in a homogeneous country at a time when there was no civilian interaction between Korea and foreign countries. I was always curious about foreign countries and their people. My father worked as a military service man and he had to change location every couple of years, so we used to move from one village to another near the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) border until I went to college, although we also had a second home in Seoul from the time I was fifteen. For me, this constant moving from place to place forms a vivid and lasting memory, and the time I spent in these different areas remains in my heart more than memories from my hometown.
Were you comfortable with this type of life, moving around from village to village?
I was always curious about other places and other people, so it didn’t bother me much and I think I adapted to it, except for the fact that I had to leave my friends behind, which I also got used to. It was kind of my dream journey. But I always felt alienated in each place.
Are you still in touch with friends from these years?
No. I don’t want to be related to my past. They exist in my work though.
Who were your family members when growing up?
Mostly I lived with my parents and my two younger brothers, but also with my grandmother. We lived together in various combinations of family members because we had two different bases: one in Taegu for some time, and one in the other towns we moved through. I had a period of time growing up with my grandmother… It was not the happiest of times, but it remains a strong memory from childhood, and I always had a strong relationship with my grandmother.
What is your earliest memory?
I guess my earliest memory is that of being carried on my mother’s back – which is the way babies are carried around in Korea – as a child when I was one or two years old.
Who was Kimsooja at the age of eight? At the age of fifteen?
I was an observant and mature girl among my classmates, but also sentimental, enthusiastic, and motivated. I used to lead the class and participated in all types of school activities from the age of eight, until I moved to Seoul at the age of fourteen. From then on, I decided not to appear in the limelight, and entered my own inner world. At the age of fifteen, I decided not to participate in any art contests that give awards. I think my ego, as an artist, was already strong at that age. I still don’t have any interest in awards, as I know that most awards are about the person who gives them, not about the recipient. Recipients are often decided by the political concerns and interests of the person who gives the award. The most respectful award I have ever received was from the Anonymous Was A Woman Foundation, whose donor wishes to remain anonymous.
How did you experience family life when you were young?
Our family always had straightened financial circumstances, but I have intelligent, inspiring, warm, passionate, and loving parents who sacrificed a lot to provide their children with full educational and emotional support. I also recall being lonely while I was living apart from my parents for some time in my early teenage years, but I used that time to persue my enthusiasm for school activities and invested my energy on every single school subject I could.
What dreams and ideas did you have for the future?
I always dreamt that I’d be an artist, rather than anything else. At the age of twelve, when my teacher asked my class to write down two occupations we wished to have in the future, I wrote, “An artist and a philosopher.” Another dream I have had from a young age was to be a “wanderer.” I remember always looking at maps and making plans to save money, if only in my head. I realize I’ve been pursuing all of these dreams throughout my life.
When thinking of what was outside the borders of Korea, what did you imagine?
The border of Korea always meant North Korea to me. We were educated throughout school about the confrontational political situation between the South and the North. Furthermore, I grew up around this border area. I remember that many of my friends in these villages played with used bullet shells and casings dropped around the border and we often heard about neighbors who’d been injured by landmines. There was no freedom to travel outside of Korea until the 1980s for most people. Fortunately, I was able to visit Japan through a college exchange program in 1978, which changed my vision of Asia and my own culture. Until then, I thought all of Asia had almost the same culture, but in fact, I found great differences between Korean and Japanese cultures.
What were the differences?
The Japanese have a particular sensibility about form and color that they incorporate into their architecture and everyday life. I found that Korean culture was more raw and primitive, and it leaves more room to be flexible and creative compared to Japanese culture, which seemed to me more sophisticated, well-finished, and wrapped with a neutral sense of color.
I understand that you have a close relationship with your family, but still you chose to move far away. What tempted you to go abroad?
The Korean art world has changed a lot since I left. At that time, Korean society seemed hopeless to me, and I knew that I couldn’t expect much intellectual or financial support. I was isolated in my own world, and had trouble finding people who I could communicate with, who were creative, open-minded, unprejudiced, and who had an international perspective. It was quite a narrow society, with entrenched hierarchical within its social structure. My whole career in my country was a struggle to be independent from the power structure of the Korean art world. Also, since I was mostly invited to exhibit or commissioned by foreign curators and worked abroad communicating mainly with foreigners, it wasn’t realistic to live in such a remote country, flying back and forth, when I had so little contact with and support from it.
For ten years now you have lived in New York. What is your New York like?
The city has given me freedom, communication, support – and isolation when I have needed it. I always feel a kind of energy within me from this city, although I don’t have much contact with people. The East Village, where I live, has a great multicultural population — I love this neighborhood. The reason you love a particular city has mainly to do with the few blocks you love to hang around in. Whenever I come back from my trips and wake up the next morning, I always feel happy and energized to be back in New York. It is an island I choose for now.
What is your relationship to the New York art scene?
I am both totally alienated and at the same time, quite engaged. I feel I am part of the major art scene in New York, although I show more in Europe than in New York. The New York art world is not about showing and actually living in New York, but about being present in the international art scene as many artists are constantly traveling around the world. I hardly go to Chelsea galleries, or museums, or even openings in New York, although I sometimes wish I could.
When not traveling, what is an average week for you like?
I have a quite simple dry life in New York and I enjoy it. I stay quiet at home, as I don’t like to talk to people in the morning: planning, working on projects, exercising, and corresponding with the different institutions I am working with. Then I go to my studio, which is a few blocks away from my home, and work with my assistants. Otherwise, I divide my time between artwork production with different teams I work with on each specific project: discussions with architects, processing photos and the printing production, and working with sound or video technicians.
A perfect day off — what do you do?
I wish I could visit some museums or galleries when I have time, but whenever I step out of my home, I tend to change my direction to just go for a long walk, shopping at the farmer’s market, wandering around the city or a park rather than heading to see shows. Real life scenes are much more interesting for me than a mise-en-scène.
South Korea vs. New York — 11 hours apart, when it is 11:20 pm in Taegu/South Korea, it is 10:20 am in New York. What are the most obvious differences and similarities between these two places?
The main difference between these two places is that I have family far from me and that they are always on my mind. In New York, I have freedom in terms of human relationships — in Korea, there are too many gossips, and there is often an unnecessary fake politeness within society. So when I go to Korea, I feel uncomfortable with people’s attitudes towards their relationships, and I have to adapt to it when I’m there. I do appreciate equality in human relationships, in which people have respect for each other, which exist in most Western societies.
How do you feel about American culture?
I am not sure I know American culture well enough to discuss it. New York is a very particular part of America, and people say New York is not America, or the mainstream. I didn’t come to America, but to New York. One obvious thing I notice is that there is little adequate intellectual discussion or standards in popular culture, few of the kind of debates that I often enjoy in Europe. I just can’t watch American TV programs, except the science channels and a couple of international news channels from Europe and Asia that give a better sense of what’s actually going on in the world. The American standard of beauty is another thing that doesn’t correspond to my taste, not to mention the political misbehavior by the current government administration, which makes me embarrassed to be a part of this society at the moment. Hopefully this era will soon pass, although all of us will have to pay for their deeds.
What is your relationship to South Korea today, and how often do you visit? As an artist, has it become more important to deal with your native culture since you moved away?
I visit Korea mainly to see my family. I hardly ever visit for a project, because most Korean institutions and curators (except for a few museums and professionals) usually invite artists at such short notice that I am unable to participate in their exhibitions. The rhythm of most of the Korean art world is of the last minute, and based more on quantity than quality, so unless they decide to give artists enough time and basic support to work on a more international standard, I won’t be able to visit Korea for an art project. I’ve become more interested in Asia since I moved to New York, but not necessarily Korea. I must say I live almost like an anarchist, in an intellectual sense.
I recently saw a documentary on Susan Sontag in which she said that her home is where her books are. Where or what is home to you?
I have a great deal of respect for Susan Sontag, and for her ruminations and honesty, but I have a different interpretation of this statement. I think she herself can be her book, and what she sees and lives can be her book, rather than separating them from her. But I also understand it in the same sense that I have, as everyone feels, that home has nothing to do with intelligence, but emotion. My home is where my heart stays no matter where I am, and where there is family or a space that awaits my return.
Would and/or could you move back to South Korea?
I am not sure.
Speaking about books — you stopped reading for almost ten years and just recently started again. What triggered you to make this break? Was it an active decision or did it just happen?
I made the decision consciously, but it also happened slowly in that I didn’t have enough time and attention to follow others’ thoughts and writings. For example, I don’t read novels to simply follow stories; I can read books only when I discover a new perspective or inspiration on every single page. At the time, I was actively pursuing thought and work processes in my own world, without wanting to be influenced by others. One day, after a decade, I discovered I wanted to read other people’s ideas, what they were developing and contemplating.
Do you read differently today?
I do want to learn more from others. There are endless things to learn in this world. When I was not reading books, I was reading the great book of nature, people, and the human mind, and this type of reading will continue. There are also many interesting subjects and authors — different interpretations of the world — and I wish to read as much as I can, if I have time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen much, and it takes me a long time to read. I sometimes buy books just to see the titles — sometimes it’s enough to think about them and be inspired.
What are you reading at the moment?
I hardly finish books, although I want to, but right now I have several books I am reading, little by little: James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard, “The End of Poverty” by Jeffrey D. Sachs. I also have a few books on anarchism that I am just looking at the front covers of.
Bottaris have become significant parts of your artistic work. These traditional Korean bundles can be used in many ways — as storage, as a way of carrying things (i.e. books). This wrapping method is fascinating, so simple yet with endless variations. Do you use bottaris? What do you keep in them?
I used to use bottaris to keep my art materials–things like used fabrics and so on. I discovered the bottari as an artwork while I was on a P.S.1 residency in 1993. After I moved back to New York, my lifestyle simply changed, and I no longer use bottaris in my daily life, although I do use them at my home in Korea.
If you ever move back to South Korea, what would you keep in a bottari from the years in New York?
Actually, after my residency at P.S.1, when I was heading back to Korea, I wrapped a bottari with the New York Yellow Pages and White Pages from 1993. I don’t know what I will wrap in the future.
Tessa Praun, assistant curator Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall
(Text from the catalogue Kimsooja, published in conjuction with the exhibition at Magasin 3, 2006.)